Maybe I’m just bitter because my generation, the so-called Generation X, never made quite the splash of the ones around us, the Boomers and Millennials--at least according to the media. Cultural pundits basically looked at us for a brief moment, shrugged, and labeled us with an X indicative of the indefinable lostness that surely defines a generation of slackers. So maybe, a product of my generation, I’m jaded and cynical. Whatever the reason, I must confess: I’m sick to death of the articles, conference presentations, blog posts, and even entire books that show up in my newsfeeds almost daily telling me, a pastor: The Kind of Church Millennials Want.
So, I’m wading in. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? In fact, I’ll go ahead and be a good Gen X-er and cynically push past the pandering and production value of talking about what Millennials want from a church. Who cares? In fact, who cares what kind of church Gen X-ers want? Or Boomers? Or Builders, the so-called “greatest generation”? I think it’s time we talk about something more substantive: The Kind of Church Millennials NEED.
Millennials need a church that is one. A part of Jesus’s “Great Commandment” (love God with all your heart, etc.) that we often neglect is the beginning, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29; Deut. 6:4). God is not many. God is not divided or scattered. The God of today is not different from the God of a previous generation, beholden to the whims of tastemakers or shifting cultural mores and preferences. God is one—three Persons, one God.
And God’s church is one. Today’s cultural fragmentation—which, by the way, is only exacerbated in the church as it gloms on to generational trends—is nothing new. The first generation of the church dealt with the same issue. Thus, we have Paul’s eloquent and powerful hymn-of-a-reminder, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). One.
Beyond language and styles of music and dress and uses of technology, etc., all of which surely and necessarily change as years pass, Millennials need a church that will do everything it can to remain one. We too easily split. We are too quick to take our football and go home. We are too eager not to be part of a group with people who are different from us. We are showing Millennials and the world a church that is indignant in the face of offense. But the offense toward which we are indignant is often coming from the Gospel itself. So we must commit ourselves to be one for as long as we possibly can. Disputes come and, despite the church’s best efforts, necessitate separation. It’s a fact. But even such separation should be a desperate, heart-breaking last resort. And it should not be at the expense of the church’s oneness in Christ. This is the church Millennials need.
Millennials need a church that is holy. Again, every time we retreat from the offense of the Gospel—even if we do it in the name of “relevance”—we are retreating from God’s call to holiness. Now I’ve seen the lists of do’s and don’ts. I’ve even made up my own. This is not holiness. I’m talking about the holiness that all creation is waiting for (Rom. 8:14-22)—the holiness of humans growing in and reflecting the likeness of God, of chip-off-the-ol’-block children made in God’s image.
Imagine Moses ascending Mt. Sinai, into the cloud of unknowing, into the fiery darkness of the holy presence of YHWH (Ex. 19). Imagine Moses experiencing the unfathomable radiance of the Lord’s holiness, receiving God’s holy law and the meticulous instructions for the holy tabernacle, the sacred space where God will meet with his people (Ex. 20-31). Down the mountain the people are tired of waiting and have given up on Moses. They’ve retreated into the company of the surrounding pagan gods, making a golden calf, an idol to worship that is more tangible and malleable than this vast, demanding God.
Now imagine Moses dragging the golden calf up Mt. Sinai and telling YHWH amidst the wind and fire, “Lord, this calf is the language of the culture. Let’s use this and some of the other pagan trappings to attract the crowd. Then when they come, we’ll gradually help them get to know you. Also, we don’t want anyone to feel left out. So let’s tone down the fire and darkness and mystery and some of the stuff about you we don’t like. Instead, let’s say you’re like…oh, I don’t know…some kind of shiny farm animal.”
Millennials need a church that refuses to dumb itself down, a church that will not shrink from or shrug off God’s holiness but will rush headlong into the fiery mystery of this holiest One—no matter how strange he has revealed himself to be or how odd we, growing in his likeness, must become. Millennials need a holy church.
Millennials need a church that is catholic. Surely we know this does not mean Roman Catholic (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Catholic literally means “universal,” and that’s the church Millennials need. This is the church that encompasses time and space, the church that spans both history and the globe. The “style” may be contemporary, but the church Millennials need is one that is thoroughly grounded in and informed by its history and tradition. The “latest thing” can be just as much an idol as a golden calf, especially when it leads the church to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” (Eph. 4:14). Orthodoxy (and, to some degree, orthopraxis) is what connects the church not only historically, but also globally.
The catholic church is the body of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, who is its exalted Head. Crucified, he has conquered sin. Risen, he has conquered death. Ascended, he has conquered all powers. He is at “the right hand of God,” the place of power and authority, from which he is everywhere present to bring the reign of God throughout history and across the earth. And the chief means for the implementation of Christ’s all-encompassing (catholic) reign is the Spirit-filled church.
Check out this picture of the catholic Christ and his catholic church: “God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence” (Eph. 1:20-23, The Message). Millennials need a catholic church.
Millennials need a church that is apostolic. First, this means the church of the Apostles, the ones Jesus called and sent out, whose teaching was basically the aforementioned catholic faith—Jesus the Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended.
And, second, an apostolic church is, literally, a “sent out” church. Jesus’s so-called “Great Commission” connects apostolicity with oneness, holiness, and catholicity (Matt. 28:18-20). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [catholic]. Therefore go [apostolic] and make disciples of all nations [one, catholic, apostolic], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [one, holy, catholic], and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [holy].”
But it’s somewhat trivial to parse the Commission out like that. The whole thing is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, because the whole thing is the church—rooted in the authority of the risen and ascended Christ, globally present, immersed in the reality of the Triune God, obediently following Jesus’s commands. This is the church that is both Apostolic and apostolic. And this is the church Millennials need.
But there’s one more line. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Generations come and generations go. Millennials, large as they are and influential as they’re increasingly becoming, will give way to another generation. Surely there will be articles and books and speeches made about dressing up your church and even your beliefs to attract that next generation. So what is it Millennials need? What do X-ers and Boomers and Builders need? What does all humanity and all creation need? It’s simple: Jesus. “I am with you,” he promises. “At all times, from age to age and trend to trend, I am with you.” If we cling to metrics and fads and shifting cultural mores, we are building a house on sand. And great will be the crash (Matt. 7:24-27).
Only Jesus—crucified, risen, ascended, and returning—can promise to be with us always, forever. And only a church that clings to him—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—will find itself in the divine embrace and eternal dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who is Love. This is the church Millennials need.